Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Sinfonia Concertante. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Lipman, viola; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Avie AV2317 (2-disc set).

What do you get when you combine all five of Mozart's violin concertos along with the Sinfonia Concertante in a singlet set? And then you have them performed by one of the world's leading violinists, Rachel Barton Pine? And you find her accompanied not only by the great Academy of St. Martin in the Fields but by its founding director, Sir Neville Marriner? And Avie does all of it up in good, natural sound? You get a darned fine recording all the way around, that's what you get.

Mozart wrote his violin concertos in Salzburg around 1775 or a little before when he still in his late teens. Audiences for the past two hundred-odd years have appreciated their appealing melodies and expressive style. Interestingly, Mozart never returned to the violin concerto as such for the rest of his life, probably because as a piano virtuoso he liked composing for that instrument, writing over twenty-seven piano concertos. (Although, to be fair, Mozart was also a violin prodigy, but later apparently preferring the piano.) In any case, one usually has to buy two or three albums to own all five violin concertos by a single performer, so already it's a good deal to find Ms. Barton Pine doing all of them in one set. Also interestingly, Ms. Barton Pine has recently been playing all five concertos in single concerts. Those must be some programs.

As welcome as Ms. Barton Pine is in this music, we must also welcome Sir Neville back conducting the group he co-founded in 1958. You would think that at nearly ninety years of age (at the time of this recording) he might be slowing down, but apparently not. His accompaniment is as alert as ever, and it goes without saying that the Academy play as smoothly and precisely as ever.

Now, as to the performances: Don't expect anything quite like the quick, fleet-footed readings of Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Philharmonic (DG) or Lara St. John and The Knights (Ancalagon), to name a couple of my favorites in this repertoire. No, Barton Pine and company adopt tempos closer to Ms. Mutter's early recordings with Karajan (DG) and Muti (EMI), moderate tempos that nevertheless bring out all the beauty and expressiveness these concertos have to offer. As we might expect from Marriner and the Academy, especially, these are elegant, stylish performances, filled with delicate nuances and ravishing lines.

The powers that be at Avie Records arranged the concertos with Nos. 4, 1, and 3 on disc one and Nos. 5, 2, and the Concertante on disc two. Well, I don't suppose the order makes any difference; Mozart wrote all of them at about the same time. Except when it comes to trying to find something in the set; then you have to check the packaging to see where to find a specific concerto. Did Avie just want to start with a popular concerto by beginning with No. 4? Or was it a matter of what they fit on each disc? I dunno. But how hard would it have been to put the longest work, the Concertante, first, followed by Nos. 1 and 2 on disc one? They would easily have fit, as would Nos. 3-5 on disc two. A trivial criticism, in any event.

So, things begin with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K218, certainly one of the most well-known and possibly most-beloved of the concertos. OK, one can understand why Avie started with No. 4. In Ms. Barton Pine's capable hands and with Marriner and company providing such expert support, the whole thing is a delight. Oh, and Mozart left no cadenzas for any of the five concertos, so Ms. Barton Pine has written her own. She says she feels more comfortable playing her own personal cadenzas, and certainly they seem to fit Mozart's style and moods.

Rachel Barton Pine
And so it goes. The Concerto No. 1 has a zippy poise about it, energetic yet never rushed, with a charming Adagio, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra always an attractive two-way affair. No. 3 Barton Pine says is her favorite, and it shows in her enthusiasm and loving attention. She claims it's Mozart's "friendliest" key, G major, and the first movement most resembles an aria. She performs in a most songlike manner, the second-movement Adagio soaring plaintively.

No. 5, which leads off the second disc, is the longest of the violin concertos and among the most creative. Barton Pine and her fellow players handle it in stride, highlighting its playful yet contrasting tones start to finish. The first movement alone plays like a miniature concerto in three parts: fast, slow, fast. The second and third movements, an Adagio and Minuet, are graceful and smiling, with Ms. Barton Pine again bringing these qualities to the fore. The final violin concerto in the set, No. 2, seems a little simple, almost old-fashioned, by comparison to the previous piece, yet the performers again bring out the best in it, with a pleasingly infectious cadence throughout.

The album concludes with the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364, from 1779, and here violist Matthew Lippman appears with Barton Pine. Mozart's mother had died the year before he wrote it, and most critics agree that the music reflects this loss. It shows a greater seriousness and maturity than the violin concertos and more-ambitious orchestration. Ms. Barton Pine and her companions play it in a wholly appropriate fashion, emphasizing its solemn nature without making it sorrowful or overly sentimental. It's maybe the most-brilliant and impressive work on the program, and Barton Pine and company execute it with both passion and compassion.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the album at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London in August and September 2013. There's a sweet warmth around the sound, with a flattering hall resonance providing a realistic ambience. Yet the bloom is not so great that takes anything away from the recording's clarity, which remains good. The soloist appears well integrated into the ensemble, just out ahead of the orchestra and to the left. The orchestral detail is fine, as is the depth and dimensionality of the group; and Ms. Barton Pine's violin sounds wonderfully transparent, almost glowing in its excellence.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa